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Wanna be like Leo?
Author wants to spread the genius of da Vinci
Web posted on: Tuesday, November 24, 1998 2:05:16 PM
(CNN) -- Michael Gelb believes that Leonardo da Vinci's genius can be tapped to unlock and inspire the genius within all of us. In his book "How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci: Seven Steps to Everyday Genius", Gelb, founder and president of the High Performance Learning Center, teaches readers how to maximize their intellectual and creative potential using the principles of da Vincian thought. Gelb was the guest for a recent one-hour long chat with CNN Interactive Books. This is a transcript of that chat.
Question: How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Gelb: I've been researching and teaching creative thinking for my
entire professional career. Leonardo was one of my childhood heroes, so the two interests naturally came together.
Question: So what is the basic idea? How do you think like da Vinci?
Gelb: There are seven principles for thinking like Leonardo. The first is to awaken and refine our natural desire to learn. The second is to cultivate our powers of original thinking and our ability to learn from mistakes. The third principle focuses on refining our sensory awareness. The fourth principle is symbolized by the smile of the Mona Lisa and emphasizes the importance of dealing with change, uncertainty and paradox. The fifth principle shows the importance of balancing art and science, logic and imagination -- what we call whole-brained thinking.
The sixth focuses on the importance of body mind fitness, and the seventh principle concerns the cultivation of systems thinking- the ability to see patterns, connections and relationships. In the book, I tried to show how these principles emerge from a careful study of Leonardo's life and work, and how the reader can embody the principles through a step-by-step program of practical exercises.
Question: So what does this say about the concept of 'left brained' versus 'right brained' people? Is everyone inherently creative? Are we all capable of high levels of creative thought?
Gelb: Well, whatever one's brain dominance, we bring out the best of ourselves when we strive for balance. And just about everyone is capable of much more creative expression and creative thinking then they might imagine.
Question: There seems to be a principle missing here. One of the drives in Leonardo's thinking was the spiritual. He believed the pursuit of knowledge or truth wasn't primarily for selfish purpose but rather for a spiritual or ethical purpose. You seem to have missed this point.
Gelb: That is accurate. The seventh principle expresses Leonardo's spirituality very clearly. The exercises in this chapter guide the reader to integrate their own personal spiritual vision with their other personal and professional goals. There are also meditation exercises presented in this chapter which are designed to guide the reader to an experiential appreciation of Leonardo's spiritual vision.
Question: So what is your background -- educational, professional, etc?
Gelb: I studied psychology and philosophy at Clark University, in Massachusetts. I got my masters in psychophysical re-education from Gottard College. I spent a year intensively studying the spiritual traditions of the world with J.G. Bennett, then I trained for three years to become a teacher of the Alexander technique while working as a professional juggler.
I've appeared live on stage with both the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. I've also been studying mediation and martial arts for 27 years and, back in 1978, I began working with companies around the world, applying the fruits of my research to try to humanize the workplace.
"Leonardo was extremely playful. He loved jokes, riddles, games, songs, juggling and storytelling. And, although he was the greatest genius of all time, he made many mistakes. But, like most geniuses, he continued to learn, experiment and play even in the face of adversity and apparent failure."
-- Michael Gelb
Question: Which philosophical tradition do you mostly draw upon regarding your interest in thought and how to "enhance" thought?
Gelb: Hmmm ... probably Taoism.
Question: Do you think da Vinci's spirituality was key to his creative success, or the other way around?
Gelb: I think it was the other way around. I think that he was, at first, jealous of the creator, and aimed to replicate creation while fully understanding supreme truth and beauty. This was, of course, serious "chutzpah." Ultimately, he was humbled, as we all are.
Question: How do you explain da Vinci's ability to 'see beyond his time,' or as we say now, to 'think outside the box?'
Gelb: It's beyond explanation. His genius was truly miraculous. Freud wrote a book about da Vinci in which he attempted to explain the maestro's creativity, and I feel that he failed miserably. One writer called Leonardo a "genetic mutation," although I cannot explain the extent of his incredible gifts and talent. I can confidently state that he did manifest the seven principles that are introduced in the book. Although I don't suffer from the delusion that any of us are in danger of becoming transcendent geniuses like Leonardo, I do know that those who sincerely apply the principles offered in the book will become much more da Vincian!
Question: Is that 'intuitive' genius or 'mechanical' or what?
Gelb: That obviously depends on the individual. Intelligence is much more than just the verbal and mathematical IQ and there are guides in the book for developing our skills in all of the intelligences especially the creative and the intra-personal intelligence. Moreover, in the past, genius was a rare exception. Now the world has become so complex we need genius-level thinking to find balance and live fulfilling lives. So the main area of genius that the book is concerned with is related to the art of living, to making one's life a work of art.
Question: How important was the "perspiration" to da Vinci's accomplishments, in addition to the "inspiration"? Do you feel that is important to every day genius?
Gelb: Yes. Nothing of any real value is ever accomplished without
focused, committed work and perseverance.
Question: How important to developing genius do you think are play and chances to make mistakes? I teach gifted kids, and it seems that modern society denies them opportunities to play and opportunities to make mistakes.
Gelb: That's the primary focus of the first two da Vincian principles. Leonardo was extremely playful. He loved jokes, riddles, games, songs, juggling and storytelling. And, although he was the greatest genius of all time, he made many mistakes. But, like most geniuses, he continued to learn, experiment and play even in the face of adversity and apparent failure.
Question: As a software developer I like to smoke marijuana to get an 'edge' on ingenuity. Am I deluding myself?
Gelb: It's not a practice I normally recommend. I guess you would have to experiment by comparing your creative effectiveness with and then without that particular stimulus.
Question: But I really do feel that my mind skips a groove in thought and the THC opens unexplored vistas; maybe the ones that Leonardo experienced.
Gelb: Well, there's certainly evidence form Carlos Castenada, Aldus Huxley, and Timothy Leary, among others, suggesting that mind-altering chemicals may contribute to their creative process and, of course, we can't forget Coleridge either. On the other hand, we have Timothy Leary's colleague, Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, and others who experimented with various hallucinogens and then decided that their consciousness could be better raised through meditation. It is highly unlikely that Leonardo used any mind altering substance. He was a vegetarian and decried drunkenness. He liked moderation, although he liked wine with food.
Question: I understand that your book is more about quality of life issues and perhaps less about education, but may I ask an education question? Do you feel that the current big content push in schools, with its accompanying jump-through-hoops approach, is anathema to developing genius?
Gelb: If it's one-sided and focuses too much on content and curriculum, as opposed to process and the integrity of the learner, then it's obviously out of balance. We've seen the tendency over the course of this century for education to lurch back and forth between "a traditionalist approach" -- emphasizing retention of facts and test scores, and the "regressive approach" -- focusing on the quality of the learner's experience and of the learning process. Unfortunately, this is an expression of half-witted, half-brained thinking on both sides. What's needed is an educational approach based on the da Vincian principle -- particularly principle number two, which emphasizes independent thinking and learning from mistakes and principle number five, which stresses the importance of art and science, process and result.
Question: So can you apply your 'Seven Steps' to children? Can we 'cultivate genius' in our kids?
Gelb: Thomas Mann once wrote, "We are all born as infant prodigies." I've included tips on applying Leonardo's principles for children in the book,
and a reader called me up a few weeks ago and said that the book gave him the language to communicate to his children everything he always wanted to teach them but he didn't quite have the words to say. My vision is that children around the world will grow up with the seven principles of history's greatest genius to inspire and guide them to the full expression of their vast god given potential.
Question: Mr. Gelb, Is there a reason for Leonardo's use of the backwards writing? It is not easy to do!
Gelb: Two reasons: First of all, he was a left-hander. And, second of all, he probably wanted to keep his notes confidential. Learning to write backwards is easier than you think ... it just takes a little ecitcarp.
There's a sample of mirror writing in the book from my mother. She has always been able to do mirror writing effortlessly. We think that this may be the real source of my lifelong interest in Leonardo da Vinci.
Question: How is your book different from "Think like a Genius?"
Gelb: There was actually a review in Publisher's Weekly that pointed out some similarities while suggesting, I am happy to report, that the Leonardo book offered a much richer and multi-dimensional resource.
Question: Did da Vinci ever claim mystical experience, such as Bucke's cosmic consciousness?
Gelb: "Claim" wouldn't be the way to describe it. Some of his writings suggest that he did indeed experience "cosmic consciousness." But, more than his writings, the Last Supper, the Mona Lisa, the Virgin of the Rocks, and the Virgin and Child with St. Ann embody transcended vision -- a vision which we can share by looking at these masterpieces with fresh eyes.
Question: How can that be taught?
Gelb: It can't be taught -- it's natural. We're all born with the inspiration of genius. Every baby explores its world with play, passion, and delight. Then, sadly, most of us lose touch with that natural inspiration because of fear and habit. Leonardo beckons us to rediscover our birthright of inspiration.
Moderator: Any closing comment from our author? The hour is about up.
Gelb: The art critic Bernard Bernsen said, "Everything Leonardo touched turned to beauty." I hope that a little of Leonardo reaches out and graces the lives of everyone who joined us this evening. Grazie. Ciao!
Question: Thank you Mr. Gelb -- do you have a website?
Gelb: I believe it's www.monumental.com/gelb. Or I can be reached at da Vincian@aol.com